Serbs warn of civil war prospect

Opposition leaders urge peaceful change as discontent with Milosevicregime rises.

As Serbia's opposition mobilizes to try to oust Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, some of the leaders are urging that change must occur peacefully.

But the need for such public statements points to a tension that could explode into another conflict, this time pitting Serb against Serb.

"Civil-war wounds last the longest and heal the hardest," Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, warned Saturday at a demonstration that drew 20,000. "Serbia must avoid the danger of civil war."

For now, the smell of revolution does not hang in the air. Many people are deterred by the possibility of further destabilization in a region beset by a decade of fighting.

But discontent is increasing. Yugoslav Army reservists, for example, are upset because most have not received back pay from the war in Kosovo. Some opposition members say the Army would turn on the police if the police used force to quell protests, as it did in 1996 and 1997.

"The most likely scenario is that a conflict between the police and demonstrators will escalate into something else," says retired journalist Nebosja Magdeski, who founded the independent Yugoslav news agency FoNet. Mr. Magdeski spent many years covering civil wars for Tanjug, Yugoslavia's official news agency.

"Another likely scenario for conflict is that security personnel hired by various political parties could start a conflict among themselves. Such scenarios will be more likely in fall when students come back to school," Magdeski says.

In the event of civil war, Mr. Milosevic could likely count on the loyalty of special units, especially the 72nd Brigade located in Belgrade. The Red Guard, which numbers roughly 5,000 soldiers, would also likely remain loyal to Milosevic, as would special units in the police.

But reservists and the professional Army might very well disobey Army commands and even fight against the police, according to Magdeski and members of the opposition.

Vladan Batic, the director of the Alliance for Change, told a crowd of several thousand in the Serbian town of Kraljevo last week that the Army would not remain allied to Milosevic.

"The Army, the people, the Alliance for Change," Mr. Batic shouted.

The Alliance for Change is a coalition of opposition groups that has been holding rallies across Serbia over the past few weeks. The Alliance is planning a massive civil disobedience campaign in late August or early September whose goal is to force the resignation of Milosevic.

Crucial weight to movement

Mr. Draskovic's rally Saturday, in Kragujevac, was the first his Serbian Renewal Movement has led since the war in Kosovo. A central Serbian town, Kragujevac was hard hit during and after the war; the Zastava car factory that employed 38,000 was heavily damaged by NATO bombs, and the town was flooded by refugees from Kosovo.

Some see Draskovic's entrance into demonstrations as adding crucial weight to the opposition movement. His speech was aimed at trying to unite disaffected sectors of Yugoslav society: For Montenegrins, he avoided any mention of monarchy; for disillusioned members of Milosevic's Socialist Party, he offered a transitional government that would not take revenge on other figures in the Milosevic regime; and he avoided any mention of the police or Army to win their support.

Draskovic also spoke of the disunity that has repeatedly plagued the opposition movement. "What could ruin this large and last chance to peacefully move past our tremendous misfortune? Our own irresponsibility is our largest problem and enemy. Things are said which can only hinder our goals."

Some are hopeful of peaceful change. Asked how he saw change happening - a "Hitler scenario" or "Romania scenario," for example - opposition Democratic Party president Zoran Djindjic says an "Indonesian scenario" is most likely. He thinks a popular uprising on the street could force relatively peaceful change.

Yugoslavia, furthermore, may be too tired for more violence. "People's energy for fighting was depleted during the war [in Kosovo]. I don't foresee the possibility of civil war," says Miroslav Lazanski, a military commentator close to the Milosevic regime.

Patterns from the past

Serbs have a turbulent history of settling affairs at critical moments in their history by internal strife.

World War II was also a civil war in Serbia. A number of factions fought against the Communist Partisans and sometimes against one another, while the country fought a guerrilla war against the Nazis.

In 1903, the repressive authoritarian regime of Serbian King Alexander Obrenovic came to a violent end when he was assassinated by a group of his own officers. King Alexander had suspended the Constitution in 1888.

Yugoslavia's government today has eerie parallels. The opposition considers the Milosevic government unconstitutional because it does not recognize Montenegro's ruling party in federal government and because parliamentary procedure has not been followed in parliament.

The New Democracy Party, which is opposed to Milosevic, was stripped of its seats in federal parliament last week, and a number of temporary martial-law decrees were permanently codified.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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